Bringing Up Bontoc


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[O]n my hands and knees, on the side of a mountain, on a footpath that had shrunk to twelve-inches wide, I realized why the farmers in these mountains return home before nightfall. A missed step, even a stagger, could end in a deadly fall into a magnificent valley of rice terraces. But that’s not what you should think about on a cliff, so I put one knee forward then one hand while my guide, a weathered, seventy-year-old, five-foot-tall woman, stood waiting for me to crawl along to the coffee farms dangling from the slopes of these mountains in the northern Philippines.

It was an e-mail from my friend Maria Susanna Edilo, who goes by Susan, that started me up this mountain. Susan is one of the top coffee professionals in the Philippines, and improving the country’s coffee is her vocation, whether through her Philippine Barista and Coffee Academy or consulting with government agencies. She contacted me about a Department of Trade and Industry program. The program, Susan wrote, was attempting to help coffee farmers in Mountain Province, a land-locked area of Luzon, to become more competitive by providing education to improve their coffee.

Wes Kerlin and Goldfish Café owner Gemma Ngelangel. (Photos: Wes Kerlin.)
Wes Kerlin and Goldfish Café owner Gemma Ngelangel. (Photos: Wes Kerlin.)

Once one of the world’s major producers, great beans can be found in the Philippines but they’re hard to come by. Some of the best coffee grows on southern islands fought over by the government and separatist Islamist groups, making export difficult if not dangerous. In other parts of the country, there’s been an erosion of quality. Coffee farming, which came to the Philippines with the Spanish hundreds of years ago, began to falter in the nineties, hit hard by cheap imports and underfunded development projects. Then, a few years ago, many farms in Mountain Province were damaged by a typhoon. The province is likely five to ten years behind areas producing coffee featured as single-origin and micro-lot. Few farms use drying beds or know proper harvesting and processing practices. The beans are used within the province or sold to local brokers and eventually turned into instant coffee. The infusion of new knowledge that could come from young farmers drains away as farm kids leave for big cities or work abroad.

At the same time, I’ve watched specialty coffee shops blossom in this country. Young shop owners have third-wave knowledge and want to use great Filipino beans, but they’re stuck with mediocre Italian imports or low-quality local arabica.

I share Susan’s sense of responsibility to the Filipino coffee industry. The country is my second home. My love of the Philippines began twenty-four years ago when, as a young US Air Force airman in a K-9 unit, I was assigned to Clark Air Base, just outside of Angeles City. The connection was cemented when I married my wife, Madel Kerlin, who was born and raised in Lipa City, where the Spanish first planted coffee in the country. I had previously told Susan I wanted to help at her academy and with other projects. When she described the Mountain Province effort, I said I was all in.

A month later my wife and I arrived in Manila at midnight after a twenty-hour trip from Indianapolis. Later that jet-lagged morning I took a two-hour bus ride across sprawling, fourteen-million-strong Metro Manila to Susan’s top-notch coffee school. Susan studied at the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland and brought its model home. The connection is clear in the knowledge of her staff and the school’s enviable equipment. I felt instantly at home with the staff and students, and we fell right into talking about siphon pots, Chemex, V60’s, and plenty of other gear. I presented Susan and the academy with one of my World War II-era Cory siphon pots as a gift of thanks as well as coffees I had brought from my office at Julian Coffee Roasters.

Hidden under the roast’s dark profile were some dark chocolate and cherry notes with medium acidity.

At the conclusion of the training there, my day was only getting started. Susan and I went to the bus station to catch our ride for the 260-mile, twelve-hour trip to Bontoc. My wife was supposed to meet us there. When Susan and I arrived, I couldn’t find my wife anywhere in the mass of people milling about the terminal. Then the bus began to pull away. Like a scene in a movie, my wife appeared out of the crush. She scampered to us and hopped on just in time.

We drove north through the night. The rising sun revealed the beauty of the countryside and the outlines of mountains slowly emerged. We drove into the type of fog you only see at higher elevations, the type you roll in and then out of as the road rises and falls.

We descended into Bontoc, the region’s capital, a small but bustling town of 24,000 people named after the first tribe to settle the area. The town lies on both sides of a bowl in an otherwise narrow river valley. A bridge connects the two sides of the town. While Bontoc’s roads are paved and lit, outside of town and off the highway the infrastructure falls off fast. All around are rice paddies terracing up the mountains, with small patches of forest remaining on the steepest cliff faces. While college degrees are common, high paying jobs aren’t. It’s not strange for a bus driver to have a college degree, and most residents work in the service industry or agriculture.

Along with the Department of Trade and Industry and Susan, my trip was sponsored by a local coffeehouse. The funky, orange-hued Goldfish Café is owned by Gemma Ngelangel. Gemma is Bontoc, and photographs of Bontoc in traditional dress and sweeping mountain vistas decorate the café. This is her first café and is the only café within six hours with a commercial espresso machine. She offers a full espresso menu featuring local coffees. Third-wave coffee pioneers don’t come any more hardcore than Gemma.


After eating breakfast and checking into our hotel, we headed out for our first farm tour. We drove about thirty minutes to the town of Sagada and saw the coffee farm of Goad Sibayan, a large, muscular man. This farm, one of a few he owned, held about 100 coffee shrubs. They were all arabica and were a mix of bourbon, mundo nova, and typica. His farm sits in a valley shadowed by a cliff famous for the coffins that hang from it, an ancient and current burial practice. While we visited, a group of inspectors came to certify his farm as part of the government-sponsored program. Goad also owns a roaster that he uses to process many farmers’ beans. Another farmer told me the roaster is dysfunctional, resulting in an extremely dark roast.

The next day at Goldfish Café, a group of nearly thirty farmers gathered for a seminar on better harvesting practices. Three quarters of the farmers were women. Richard Abellon, a Filipino coffee expert, spoke about the importance of proper and timely harvesting, processing, and what would be needed to compete with cheap coffee imports. After a delicious local lunch of sweet-and-sour fish and rice, Susan and I began our presentation of brewing methods, with the goal of showing the farmers different ways their crop might be used.

Outside of Goldfish Café, people in Mountain Province either drink instant coffee or prepare their coffee by pouring grounds into a sauce pot, adding sugar and water, and then boiling it. They call it three-in-one coffee. Many people will use the same grounds two or three times a day by just adding extra water. Susan prepared coffee using a V60 and I brewed several local coffees with a Chemex and siphon pot. Like Goad’s coffee, these were roasted very dark and were low in quality, but exhibited some positive traits. Hidden under the roast’s dark profile were some dark chocolate and cherry notes with medium acidity. The siphon, of course, was a big hit, but the farmers who brought their own beans wanted them brewed in either the Chemex or V60. They loved it.

The next day we drove back to Sagada and then another twenty minutes down an unimproved road. We reached a small village overlooking a beautiful valley. We left our vehicle and a coffee farmer named Manang Nely guided us up the 2,300-foot ascent on the foot path I would soon begin to crawl up. She made it look like a Sunday stroll. This pathway, or maybe more precisely the drop from the pathway, is just another reason why so little of the coffee produced in this corner of the Philippines ever leaves the area.

Nearly halfway up the mountain we reached a small, rustic cabin owned by Manang Nely’s brother-in-law, Manong Joseph. He is one of the few male coffee farmers in the area. He prepared us some three-in-one coffee from beans he had roasted in a tin can over an open fire. We drank the sweet brew on his front porch while looking out over the vast valley. We finished our coffee, thanked Manong Joseph, and continued up the mountain.

After two hours we reached the first farm, which consisted of 900 coffee shrubs, pineapple plants, and fruit trees nestled among conifers. When we arrived, two women were digging out a new terrace to plant coffee. The farmers were building the terrace by digging out the dirt with three-foot pry bars and sifting the rocks out by hand. After this, they stacked the rocks into a wall, forming the plot’s outside edge. The last step was to create mud bricks to bolster the rock wall. Some terraces were forty-feet long by twenty-feet deep. Others were smaller than a single bed. Farmers first plant shade trees and a year later plant the coffee shrubs. Usually within three years of planting they harvest their first crop.

Manang Nely toured us through her home. Spartan fails to describe it. While Bontoc isn’t rich, most modern conveniences are there. When I asked if there was running water, she pointed to the mountain stream near the house—the same stream used to irrigate their farms. I am convinced that the government program will result in a better quality coffee and better quality of life for these farmers. Many have been given pulping machines by the government and they are eager to learn better farming techniques.

On our last day in Bontoc we met up one last time at Goldfish Café for lunch before climbing aboard our bus to Manila. We were sad to be leaving. We had found a love for Mountain Province. We rolled out of town past deep green mountain streams. The beautiful rice terraces passed by as we climbed the road taking us from our new-found mountain paradise.

—Wes Kerlin is the director of business development and education for Julian Coffee Roasters in Zionsville, Indiana.

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